Cool, Sexy, Innovative: How the Owners of Naturade are Making the Heritage Brand Hot Again

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Naturade’s Claude Tellis and Kareem Cook. Photo credit and cover ad@amynikkiphotography.

Irvine, CA—For a brand that’s been around since 1926, Naturade shows no signs of being stagnant or same-old. In a chat with WholeFoods, Naturade partners Kareem Cook, CMO, and Claude Tellis, CEO, share the vision that is transforming the brand, and, they hope, making the world a healthier place in the process.

Rewind to Duke University, which Cook and Tellis attended in the 90s: “We had conversations in college about diet-related illnesses, especially in the African American community, because both of us had family members with diabetes,” says Cook. “After graduation, we said, ‘What if someone came up with a smart way to address this crisis and actually made a business where you could do great but also by doing good?’” Their first plan was to combat childhood obesity by putting healthy vending machines in public schools in LA, where they had moved after college. It worked: Within two years, they were awarded the contract for every public high school and middle school in LA.

That led to grander thinking. “We were proud of what we had done in LA, but thought, What if we actually raised money and bought a company that could address diabetes and diet-related illnesses on a national and even global level?” So they did, buying Naturade in 2012. Their purpose, Cook explains: “We wanted to bring Whole Foods quality products to what we saw as a Walmart consumer. Why should only people who have access to the Whole Foods of the world get the highest-quality supplements and nutrition?”

Now, they are motivating people by making healthy hip. “We want to make Naturade cool and sexy and innovative…to take that heritage that the brand has—it has always been about quality and purity and authenticity—and show it’s cool to eat more plants,” says Tellis. “We come from the hip-hop community—we want to bring that sexiness, fun and enthusiasm about health to the public, and also raise awareness about food deserts. There’s no reason people who need the products the most shouldn’t have access.”

To make that vision a reality, they rely on what worked with kids in LA. “We learned with the vending machine company is that kids are motivated by two things: Being cool, and not being hurt,” says Cook. “We know some celebrities, so we would have celebrities talk to the kids, and they would say, ‘I’m the coolest person you’ve met maybe ever, and I don’t eat this [unhealthy] stuff and drink this stuff.’” When being cool didn’t work, they’d invite doctors in to show the kids slides of people getting limbs amputated due to diabetes. “We would scare them,” Cook says. “And it’s the same motivators for adults—people are motivated by being cool, which is why we inject some of that into what we are doing. It’s cool to be healthy.”

Another thing setting the brand apart: “We’re places no one else goes,” says Cook. Beyond the natural expos, Naturade has a presence at The Essence Festival. “We’re the only ones there, talking to people who need these products the most. This is the addressable market, and no one is talking to them but us.” That, they say, presents an opportunity for this industry.

As for the future, Tellis says, “We’d like to take a shot at doing marketing with retailers at home, giving a percentage of our sales to the American Diabetes Association, aiding the 86 million pre-diabetics in America who have weight problems and don’t shop at Whole Foods.” Also to watch for: “We’re launching an app about losing weight and focusing on whole foods,” says Tellis. “And we’ve already done a rap video with Badass Vegan [John Lewis, VeganSmart managing partner] on eating plant-based, making it fun.”

“We are an emerging, disruptive brand with a lot of innovative products coming out,” adds Tellis. Building on the success of VeganSmart, Naturade recently introduced VeganSmart All-in-One Organic Shakes in Vanilla Creme, Chai Spices, Chocolate Fudge and Wild Berries.“Our goal is to take this plant-based revolution and get into the mainstream, and offer products that switch people off high-sugar diets.”

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